We all know that local television news is barely relevant, and often embarrassing. But here's the real news: It's hemorrhaging popularity too.
According to the latest May sweeps numbers, local television ratings are plunging faster than Ben Affleck's career. They're down from the same period last year at every station for just about every newscast from 4 a.m. to 10 p.m. Here's a brief survey of the carnage: At WSMV-Channel 4, which is to broadcast journalism what Saved By the Bell is to the sitcom, ratings crashed 19 percent for its 10 p.m. newscast. You almost have to try to lose that many viewers. The news isn't much better at WKRN-Channel 2, where ratings plummeted an astonishing 22 percent at 5 p.m. If Bob Mueller went on the air and told Channel 2's viewers that he nursed a burning sexual crush for Kenny Chesney, the ratings decline would have been less precipitous. Even Channel 5, which is repulsing local viewers far less than its rivals, dropped in every single one of its newscasts.
There are a lot of mysteries in this worldcrop circles, Carrot Top's long and profitable career, what my electric bill will be in two weeksbut dwindling television ratings aren't one of them. With a few notable exceptions like Phil Williams' blockbuster piece on evidence of bid-rigging among state road builders, most of the stories you see on local newscasts are at best forgettable. At worst, they insult your intelligence. When Channel 4 stages a live car break-in with a running clock to illustrate just how quick an auto theft can occur, the station's not just going after the lowest common denominator, it's stalking.
Channel 5 news director Mike Cutler, one of the saner voices in the business, blames the ratings drop on last month's relatively calm weather. There were no punishing storms during this year's sweeps, he points out, so fewer people had a reason to tune into the news. Also, pleasant weather means people are outside, not at home watching television. Cutler's spin might be plausible, except that ratings for local television news have been declining now for years. And people aren't really outside during the 10 p.m. news, and ratings dropped for that time period too. Really, it's not the weather, it's the journalism. And, in any case, if all you have to offer viewers is "there was a tornado watch four hours ago in Giles County," you're not exactly presiding over a healthy franchise.
Memo to those running the local newscasts: Viewers are tired of watching rehashed stories they already read in The Tennessean. They don't hanker to catch a meaningless 10-second clip about the Iraq war. They don't care about an abandoned duplex in East Nashville that caught on fire at 3 a.m. There's a lot more on the dial to interest themThe Daily Show, for example, which mercilessly spoofs the kind of local television newscasts we're criticizing here.
Television news directors are still working from decade-old premises about what viewers want, which they think is a brief, cursory look at the news and a voyeuristic, context-free glimpse of murder and mayhem. The problem is that viewers, especially younger ones, are more media savvy than they were when many of today's news directors were in journalism school. Viewers know when they're being manipulated into watching an irrelevant story. They don't worry about wild dogs on the loose or how the medicine in their cabinet might kill them. They know how television news generates entire series out of isolated incidents and, like a kid who's outgrown the neighborhood bully, they're not scared anymore. They're wise to what television news has become. And they're turned off. Literally.
Just out of curiosity, can you make it through a newscast without shaking your head in dismay? Do you have any friends who take television news seriously? That's what I thought.
One more thing: Don't blame the reporters for what you see on television. There are many decent hands at Channels 2, 4 and 5 and, to a lesser extent, WZTV-Channel 17. People like Chris Bundgaard, who knows the General Assembly and has the rare gift for encapsulating hours of legislative news into a concise 60-second clip. Or Nancy Amons, a dogged investigative reporter who needs to be turned loose more often. Larry Brinton can find a story like Eminem finds a rhyme, and his station colleague Dennis Ferrier, injects needed flair and personality into any story he does when he's not stuck in journalism hell doing lame sweeps pieces. Those are just a few; there are more good reporters at the local television stations who just want to do good work. But they're hindered either by clueless news directors and general managers or the diminished expectations of their stagnant medium.
The stodgy corporate chains that run the local television stations don't like risk and innovation. They'd rather stick to their reliable profit margins and low overhead. Why remake a franchise that's still profitable? Well, at some point it won't be. You can't keep losing viewers and jacking ad rates forever. That's not how it works.
But here's the good news: Television news can be fixed. It can still go places that newspapers only dream of going. What else could capture the heartbreak of a mother who lost her child, the crooked smile of a shady contractor or the exasperation of a beleaguered politician? The thing is, people still demand good journalism. Phil Williams' bid rigging piece was ratings gold for Channel 5. Why? It didn't insult people. Instead, it shined the spotlight on powerful people who may be playing around with hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer money. That stuff matters.
Years ago, I had an editor at the Scene give me a simple directive: Write good shit. Well, in a way, journalism really is that easy. A good story is not hard to recognize. Neither is a bad one. The people in charge of television news know the difference between the two; they just think we don't.